It’s not often a superstar performer willfully steps away from creating new music for a decade. For country singer/songwriter/guitarist Travis Tritt, though, it was a move with purpose.
“I decided 12 years ago to focus on my live shows,” he said. “I wanted to give the best performances I possibly could, and always had a hard time jumping from one phase of my work to another; every time I start on a new album I go into writing mode and I’m laser-focused. As soon as the writing is done, I go into recording mode, and I always had trouble transitioning, especially after an album was finished.”
It’s hard to argue against the methods of a guy who has seen seven of his 11 studio albums go platinum while selling 30 million units, joined with 20 Top 10 singles (five of which reached #1). He has also garnered two Grammys, four CMAs, and earned membership in the Grand Ole Opry. But, two years ago Tritt needed a change. So, he hired manager Mike “Cheez” Brown, who works with bands in an array of genres, including Sublime and The Dirty Heads.
“As soon as we started, he said, ‘You’ve had a tremendous career, but you also still have a lot of really good music left in you. Write that music – give your longtime fans something to appreciate, and draw new people.’
“The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea,” Tritt said. “And when the opportunity arose to work with Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, The Highwomen, Sturgill Simpson) as producer, it pushed me to go for it.”
The result is Set In Stone, his first album of entirely new material since 2007.
The way music is created has changed a lot since you recorded The Storm in 2007. How did that affect you?
That’s one thing I was really concerned about, and I had a talk with Dave Cobb before we agreed to work together. I told him about my concerns and he said, “Well, let me tell you how I’d do it… I’d go into the studio with some great musicians playing live in the room, and I’ll record live vocals as we’re laying down the tracks together because energy comes from that, and it can’t be replaced.”
That immediately set my mind at ease, because that’s the way I’ve done it going back to the late ’80s, when I started recording for a major label. The fact Dave stays as analog as possible made me even more comfortable; he records digitally, but dumps the mix down to tape just like we used to do in my early days. Once I knew that, it took all the uneasiness out of the equation.
Were the songs 10 years in the making, or were you focused for a shorter period?
More laser-focused, for sure. Early on, Dave suggested I work with a bunch of young songwriters he works with on everybody from Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell to Brandi Carlile and Sturgill Simpson. I was amazed when these young writers came in and told me how much my music had influenced them. It was extremely flattering – and very humbling – to hear that.
I hadn’t done a lot of writing over the past decade, but it felt comfortable, natural, and easy with these people who’d written great things for so many people. It was just wonderful. We started writing in the fall of 2019 and finished in January of ’20. It’s a confidence builder when you get back in and realize, “Hey, I haven’t forgotten how to do this!”
The album bounces through a lot of moods and styles.
You know, when people found out I was going into the studio, a few asked, “What kind of music is it going to be? More traditional, more soulful, or Southern rock?” I’d tell them, “The only thing I can say is it’s going to be a Travis Tritt album. It’s going to incorporate all the things I’ve played on every album I’ve ever done.”
I always incorporate all the influences I had growing up. Traditional country has always been my core, my center, but I was just as influenced by Southern rock – Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels. I was also heavily influenced by blues; I grew up listening to everybody from Muddy Waters to Ray Charles to Buddy Guy, B.B. King. Much later, Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan became huge influences. There was also bluegrass growing up, which I love. As a kid, I went to bluegrass festivals with my uncle, and I still go to them.
So, if you take all those genres and sprinkle a bit of Southern gospel over the top, that describes where I come from and who I am as an artist. I’ve always tried to show a little of all of it and I feel really good about the way we accomplished that on this album.
Who do we hear playing electric guitar and bass on Set In Stone?
This was the first time I had the opportunity to work with Leroy Powell. We met years ago, when he was playing lead guitar for Shooter Jennings and we did some touring together. I’ve always loved his playing, but I didn’t realize how great a player he was until we started working on this album. I also found out he’s a great pedal-steel player, a great harmonica player, and great Dobro player. It really was an absolute joy to work with him.
Working with Jimmy Fulbright on bass was incredible, as well. He’s the only guy I’ve ever met who never messes up. Most of the time, somebody wants to go back in and punch-in a fix on a section or note. As far as I know, Jimmy never had to do that. He was incredible.
Who else do we hear playing?
Dave Cobb is a tremendous musician; he and I did a lot of the acoustic stuff. He was playing a great-sounding Martin D-28 and I played my ’42 D-28, which was my go-to for the session; I used it on the intros and leads on “Better Off Dead” and “Leave This World.” I didn’t play any electric guitar this time.
What are your earliest musical memories?
My earliest memory of being moved by music is the gospel songs I heard in church when I was a kid in Georgia. It was the ’60s, and on Saturday nights, Dad would have us sit in our front yard and listen to the Grand Ole Opry live on WSM AM radio. Some of my earliest memories of falling in love with music came from those nights.
I couldn’t have been more than four or five when I heard Bobby Bare’s “500 Miles Away From Home.” There was something about the words and his delivery that grabbed hold of me. A few months later, Dad brought home an album by Jerry Reed and one of the songs was “500 Miles Away From Home,” but it was totally different. Jerry, being the great guitar player he was, started it off talking to other musicians in the studio. He says, “Okay, boys, don’t you all jump in right away, okay, ’cuz I’m just going to claw awhile.” He started playing that signature lick, and man, it just floored me as a kid.
Was that the beginning of your attraction to the guitar?
Well, it came from a lot of sources. Jerry’s stuff was too advanced, so I opted for musicians who music was easier, like John Denver and James Taylor, who was extremely influential to me when it comes to the guitar. I started playing when I was six years old, on a Harmony that Dad bought for me. When I turned 14, I asked for a real guitar – an Epiphone 12-string that I wanted because John Denver played a 12-string. Well, they bought one for me, and it was absolutely beautiful – sunburst and just so cool! And it opened a whole different world for me. When I’d hear a 12-string like Boston or some of the stuff from the Eagles, it blew me away – and motivated me to learn that much more. I absolutely loved that guitar.
Did it teach you about how more guitars can help you do more, musically?
Yes, it absolutely did. And I learned even more when I started playing clubs in the mid ’80s. I went into a little bar-restaurant one night where there was a guy on a riser in the corner, playing acoustic guitar and singing. He might have had a drum machine. I thought, “Man, I could do that.” So I did. The guy was Michael Bo Griner, and he’d let me sit in with him from time to time. Then, when he went to Nashville to pursue a career, I told the manager, “I want that job.” But I quickly found out that when you’re playing bars, you’re competing with a lot of stuff – alcohol, pool tables, pinball machines, dart boards…
Exactly! So I had to figure a way to get attention. I went to The Music Mart, in Smyrna, and bought my first Strat – a blond one – and a Twin Reverb, both brand new with a 100-foot guitar cord. All on a credit card. I was playing Monday through Friday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., and on Saturdays ’til 4 a.m. The first two sets were just me and an acoustic, being a human jukebox, doing everybody else’s stuff. Every now and then I might throw in something I’d written. But at midnight I’d pull that Strat out and do “Johnny B. Goode” or Credence Clearwater, and that 100-foot cord let me run out and jump on tables and kick empty beer bottles. Not only did it get attention, it made people want to come back. Maybe they were thinking, “I don’t know what this crazy guy is going to do next, but I wanna see it!” And over time there was a line out the door and around the building. That was my introduction to electric guitar.
After I started having some success with records and tours, I realized that in order to sound like my records, I needed to expand my guitar collection. That’s when I started getting Les Pauls, other Strats, and Telecasters because each song called for a different thing.
Were you buying new stuff or old?
Yeah, I didn’t have any vintage instruments until I met Marty Stuart. We did “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” together, which became a big hit, and Marty was at my house for several days while we prepared for our No Hats Tour in ’92. One day, he said, “You need to add some vintage instruments to your collection.” I said, “Well, what do you suggest?” And he said, “There’s two staples – a good herringbone Martin D-28 and a darn-good old Telecaster.”
He took it on himself to help me find them, and a few months later he called, saying, “Man, I found a 1942 D-28 that’s exceptional. It’s a little beat up, but has been used by an old bluegrasser. It’s got that sound.” So I bought it. Then a few months later, Marty called from California, saying, “I found a 1950 nocaster. You need this guitar, I’m telling ya’!” I said, “What’s a nocaster?”
He told me the whole story and said this one still had the cover on the bridge and its original pickups. He said, “It’s absolutely fantastic.” So I ended up buying it. The A&R guy at Warner Brothers who discovered me found a ’59 Bassman for me, and when I plugged that nocaster into that Bassman, it made the sound Leo Fender intended – just incredible.
All thanks to Marty Stuart, guitar pusher!
Absolutely. One thing I’ve always said about Marty is he’s real good at spending my money (laughs).
But he was getting you into vintage instruments before prices went too nuts.
Exactly, and educated me on a lot of instruments. Of course, Marty owns a ton of them.
I did stray away from Marty’s advice on a couple of occasions. In the early ’90s, Fender made a limited number of chrome-covered Harley-Davidson Strats. I’m a Harley rider and have several, so when that guitar came out, of course I wanted one. I called Marty and said, “I’m looking for one of these,” and he said, “Don’t buy one of those! It’s never going to hold its value!” Well, thank God I didn’t listen to him; I bought one and within a year its market price went through the roof. Marty called later and said, “That was a smart move on your part.”
Throughout your career, you’ve worked with some stellar studio lead guitarists – Richard Bennett, Reggie Young, Billy Joe Walker, Jr…
… Marty Stuart on numerous occasions. Yeah, every one of them brings an element that makes a song come to life. If I don’t have a signature lick or something that makes a song recognizable, all of those guys are so good at creating them. “Anymore” comes to mind; when we play live, I play the first few notes on acoustic and people know what it is. That’s because of the great guitar players I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years.
Whose acoustic lick starts that song?
That was a Billy Joe Walker, Jr. lick.
How about the lead?
That was Reggie Young, who influenced me so much, not only with his playing, but his tone. I remember one time in the studio in the ’90s; he was playing through a Matchless amp that he had never used before. He told me it was essentially a Vox, updated. He was just getting such a great tone, and as a result of watching and hearing him play that day, I bought a Matchless just like it. I’ve picked up a lot of cool things like that from different players.
Do you have a handful of other personal favorite guitar breaks or leads in your songs?
I would say probably “Homesick,” “Put Some Drive in Your Country”… There’ve been so many great ones, golly! My cover of “Leave My Girl Alone” also one of my favorite guitar licks.
What’s the story behind your custom Martin?
In the late ’90s, I was on tour with Marty again and when we were in Pennsylvania, he called and said, “Martin is making a signature guitar for me and I’ve got to stop there tomorrow. Would you like to go?”
So, we get there and Dick Boak came in and said, “You guys have got to see what just came in.” In the warehouse, they had some spruce tops along with Brazilian rosewood backs and sides cut in the early ’40s that had belonged to a luthier somewhere in Appalachia who had passed away and left the wood in his stash. They had just enough to make six guitars, and whoever got one has what is essentially a pre-war Martin.
And two of them were quickly spoken for?
Immediately! Marty ordered a pretty standard one, and once again, Marty Stuart spends my money extremely well (laughs); he told me, “I’ve had this idea for years… Instead of doing the herringbone in ivory, you should have them do it in abalone. Do it on the front, back, and sides, all the way around, like on the old D-45s; sound hole and pickguard, too.”
Marty had an early-’40s D-28 that had belonged to Lester Flatt, and there was something about that neck that was different than any other Martin I’ve ever held; it fit my hand perfectly. Marty took that guitar to Martin so they could measure its neck and make one for the guitar I was having built. Dick had a very intricate vine inlay that had never been used, so we used that.
I waited months for that guitar, but it was absolutely gorgeous. I think I paid $18,000, and even brand new it sounded old. I’ve written many songs on it. In the early 2000s, Martin wanted to do a signature guitar with me and because that was my favorite guitar, I said, “Let’s see if we can incorporate some things from it.” We did a half-cutaway with some of that abalone herringbone around the sound hole and the outside. I took my original back to do the measurements and let them take a close look. Dick said, “Even if we could find the wood to make this guitar again – which we can’t – it would cost over $120,000 to build.”
Yeah! So I felt very fortunate. Anywhere I am, that guitar is close to me. It’s the one I play on the bus, when I’m waiting before a show, and at every writing session I do.
Do you have a favorite Les Paul?
The one that I play onstage every night. It’s a ’92 Standard the Custom Shop made for me. I’ve had several Les Pauls, but that one just feels right. It’s me. I also have a Gary Rossington signature that I love because it’s a great-playing, great-feeling guitar. And a few years ago, Charlie Daniels gave me one of the Southern Rock Les Pauls he did with Gibson, and I love that guitar, too.
Are there oddballs in your collection? Something you bought as a curiosity, or were given?
I had a couple gifted to me. When we did Blues Brothers 2000, all these great musicians were on the set one day – Clapton was there, and all the guys from the original Blues Brothers Band – Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. B.B. King was there, Bo Diddley; I’d never met Bo before, and I kept asking about his guitar. When we finished, he gave me the one he was playing. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. It’s an oddball and I’ve messed with it in my studio, but never onstage.
Later, I was working with Gretsch when they did a reissue of Merle Travis’ Bigsby, and I got one as a curiosity piece. When Gibson introduced the Nighthawk, they gave me a couple to see how I liked them, and I really did.
Unique electronics, that angled bridge pickup, like a Fender.
Yes, and you can create some very, very cool sounds with it. I’ve always loved Marty’s tone on an old Gretsch, like a Country Gentleman. I love those, so I got one years ago. It’s not vintage, but man it’s got that vibe, you know? That thing! Around that same time, I also got a modern Silver Jet. There’s some really cool things I can create with that guitar that I can’t do with any other.
This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.